More fun with BAA: T5 still hopeless

Heathrow Terminal 5 is a disaster.  It’s a year since I last travelled through and, if anything, it has got worse.  I had a return trip to Canada over the last two weeks.  Going out wasn’t too bad; coming back from Canada exposed Terminal 5’s problems.

T5 Experience for Transit Passengers

My wife and I got off the plane at 6.45 am on Sunday morning.  After queuing and being checked for over an hour we finally made it into the Terminal ‘proper’ at around 8.00 am.  That’s an hour and a quarter to clear immigration.

There were four queues to negotiate when getting off the plane at T5. They all took place in a hot, airless, basement of the terminal.  Not very welcoming to foreign passengers.

  • The first queue was to actually get into the hall where we had our boarding card checked. Essentially, we were transit passengers.  This queue split us into UK passports and everybody else. Luckily, our UK passport queue seemed shorter than everybody else – god knows how long they had to wait.
  • The next (for us) fairly short queue was to get our passports checked. Everybody else seemed to have very long additional waits to get their passports checked.
  • The third queue was to get our pictures taken.   This took a LONG time. I wonder how long they keep the pictures.  Knowing the previous Labour government, probably ‘forever’ is the retention time.
  • The fourth, final, tedious, queue was to get our hand luggage scanned. Luckily we weren’t the lucky few who got a very, very personal pat down from the security staff.

And all this took over an hour.  It is was also staffed by grumpy, bored, unsmiling security staff who treated is like cattle to be processed.  And the joke is: we paid for this as part of our plane ticket price.  We were the customer.  You’d never know it.

We were finally ejected from the security circus into a shopping centre. Not a calm place where you can relax between flights or before setting off on your first one. Nope. An incredibly busy, over bright, shiny, steel and glass edifice with widely spaced shops and hardly any seats. A place where the restaurants are not grouped in one place, but are scattered to the four corners of the Terminal. Choosing a restaurant means walking the entire length of the terminal, passing the oh-so-important shops of course.

After waiting over an hour in the queues, we also needed to use the toilets. Considering the sheer quantity of people that were stuffed into T5 it was a surprise that there weren’t more toilets. There were long queues at both the ladies and gents toilets. This is the first time I have experienced that at an airport here or abroad. You’d think that, when designing a terminal, you would get something as basic as the number of toilets for the expected number of people in the terminal.

Leaving the terminal to get on to a plane was also tedious. We were checked twice at the gate and again stood in a slow moving queue. The main culprit this time was having our photo checked. Then we had our boarding cards checked before getting onto the plane.

Finally, because Heathrow was so busy, after pushing back from the terminal, the plane was still trundling around the airport 30 minutes later before finally taking off 20 minutes late. Normal day at Heathrow I suppose.

Design Goals for Terminal 5

It’s not entirely clear what the design goals for T5 were but the outcome for us was not a particularly pleasant customer experience. It feels less like an airport terminal and more like a shopping centre which happens to have air passengers in it. Maybe BAA were more concerned with maximising revenue per passenger and less concerned with comfort, relaxation or a calm, friendly, passenger experience?

I’m going to compare Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam with Heathrow because I have had experience with both. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. They are so different that the only thing they seem to have in common is that they are both called ‘terminals’. Being in transit at Schiphol goes roughly like this.

  1. Get off plane
  2. Walk for 5 minutes or so to the centre of the terminal.
  3. Make a choice in whether to eat, shop or relax.
  4. Go to the appropriate zone
  5. When ready go to the gate
  6. Be checked at the gate which includes the baggage check, passport check and boarding card.  This doesn’t seem to take very long at all.
  7. Get on plane and depart.  From push back you are in the air within 10 minutes.

Each airports apparent attitude to security and their passengers results in very different passenger experiences. Whereas Heathrow is completely paranoid about security, Schiphol, to me, seems more pragmatic. Heathrow tries very, very hard to ensure everybody in the terminal has been checked before you get in.  At Schiphol they check you just before you get on the plane.

One of the problems with Heathrow seems to be the requirement to photograph everybody coming into the terminal and then check it on the way out. The results in delays and long queues aside from being an invasion of privacy. The overly paranoid security policy at the airport creates the rest of the delays. Besides, it’s theatre; Bruce Schneier has a lot to say on this.

T5 wants passengers to shop ’till they drop? Schiphol thinks it’s optional. T5 doesn’t want you sitting down? Schiphol provides relaxation couches around the airport. T5 makes you walk past shops whilst trying to choose where to eat. Schiphol puts them all in the same place. And Schiphol never seems to have queues in their toilets.

In summary

Heathrow T5 fails because it is designed with lots of security theatre and as a shopping centre. That’s the security processes that make us feel safe without actually doing anything about security. Long delays and miserable, bored and unfriendly security staff aren’t going to make passengers feel welcome. The apparent emphasis on extracting cash from travellers rather than giving them somewhere to relax isn’t going to help either.

I’m going to avoid Heathrow T5, which also sadly means British Airways, in future.